For those who are paying attention to the trends in our culture, there is a rapidly growing uneasiness when we contemplate the stability of our future. This has given rise to a somewhat unique genre of thinking and writing, which I’ll simply term “If only.” If only everyone will agree to certain ideas or will cooperate with certain practices, then we’ll be able to turn this all around.
Yet along with this brave song of optimism, a counter melody can be heard, which is that we also need to prepare for much harder days ahead. Of course, the practice of “prepping,” which addresses the various aspects of self-sufficiency if our luxuries and conveniences are taken from us, is nothing new.
What seems less often considered is our need for spiritual preparation of a different sort than has been sufficient in the past. We speak of getting ready to suffer, but the specifics of that endeavor are usually vague. As I’ve considered this challenge, I’ve found three tangible messages in Scripture which I believe can contribute to our readiness for the upcoming days.
I have come to understand that God’s perspective on our lives is different than many of us assume it to be. One thing Americans take for granted is that we have “inalienable rights” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Even for those who would discard the Creator who is said to have granted these to us, there is still a deeply held assumption that we are justified in seeking them through whatever means we can find.
But an honest study of Scripture reveals a different picture. While life is one of God’s most astonishing gifts, it’s simply that: a gift. He owes us nothing. Every day we live, each breath we draw is because his grace has been extended to us. Consider this passage in Luke 13:
1 There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”Luke 13:1-5 NKJV
There are essentially two ways to die. One is at the hands of someone who would take our life, and the other is through non-intentional means such as illness, accident, or natural disaster. But as Jesus points out, we all perish. In fact, it’s precisely because of our sin-nature that we die. However, he continues with an interesting parable which I believe is directly connected.
A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, “Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?” But he answered and said to him, “Sir, let it alone this year also until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.”
Jesus is saying that our attitude needs to be one of realizing his undeserved grace. The fig tree did not deserve to live and would not have, had it not been for the intervention of the persevering gardener. When a person’s life ends before old age, we often feel resentment.
This is because of our belief that the person had a “right to life,” we then see a sort of injustice in its being “cut short.”
This is not, of course, an endorsement of murder, nor does it mean we should not seek to protect others, particularly the helpless. But when forces beyond our control put others’ lives or even our own in peril, our proper response is to petition God for the extension of that life, even as the keeper of the vineyard did.
But when we are granted that extension, we must realize that the added years belong to him. Our lives are his, to be lived for his benefit, even as the fig tree was the property of and existed for the benefit of its owner. When we grasp this shift in perspective, I believe some of our fears will be lightened.
The other component of perspective that can be missing is the realization that our earthly existence is not heaven. In centering our attention and energy on maximizing our “pursuit of happiness,” we essentially are trying to build heaven into this life. There are two obvious problems with this effort.
First, simply, it can’t be done. The heaven our hearts long for is not attainable here and now. We do indeed get glimpses of it, but even as we clutch those blessings and try to make them permanent, we quickly realize we can’t. Yet rather than considering that our energies might be misdirected, most of us ramp up our efforts to find that rainbow’s end in some other person or activity or diversion or dream.
And in the process, we miss our true purpose here on earth, which is our second problem. God has designed our joy and fulfillment during this life to be found not in our self-seeking but in our self-emptying. The way we actually experience heaven on earth is not by grasping for it, but by allowing his Spirit to flow through us for the benefit of his kingdom.
Anyone who has been authentically born into the kingdom soon becomes aware of the wonderful Scriptures which speak of God’s love and mercy. Nevertheless, we need to realize that the larger portion of the Bible actually concerns itself with the darkness of our fallen world. The many promises we find that are not pleasant are still real promises. Our habit of only paying attention to the blessings God offers indicates our unwillingness to view both the Bible and our lives with the full perspective from which he views them.
From another angle, the Scriptures also tell us we are living in enemy territory. Sometimes our enemy is hostile, and we run to God for protection. But other times he is deceptively alluring, and we are ensnared not by his chains but by his charm. It’s for this reason that another type of promise also found in Scripture is very important: the promise of persecution.
A good summary is found in Luke 6:20-26, where Christ speaks of the blessings of hardships, as opposed to the “woes” of wealth and fame. How upside down this is from our cultural assumptions! But as we ponder this view of truth and incorporate it into our worldview, the prospect of hardships and suffering will have far less power over us because we can see them as evidence of God’s favor and blessing.
As we embrace this shift in our perspective and apply the full range of his promises to our circumstances, we will more easily be able to align our priorities with those of our King. Paul expressed this well in Colossians 3:2, “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
It’s pretty straightforward: our minds determine our priorities. We might think we put God first in our lives, but the real proof of what is first is found in what we set our minds on. If you take a tally of your thoughts over the course of a day, what does it reveal? What is it you seek? What is your mind taking in?
An image I often use is that of a hurricane. The world is swirling madly around us and intentionally desires to sweep us into its current. But there is a place in the middle of the madness where all is calm, and we can actually see the sun. Our full efforts, therefore, must be dedicated to staying in that eye of the storm where God is our priority and our delight.
Part of this process involves leaning on his promises for protection and provision, which are plentiful and valid. But one thing I’ve learned is that he does not give tomorrow’s grace for today’s worries. As we learn to find his sufficiency in the hour we’re actually living, it becomes easier to trust him with the next hours of our lives.
And in this realization, we are able to willingly offer all he has given us back to him. He is the owner of our “fig trees,” and we are but his caretakers. If he grants us years to care for that which he entrusts to us, then let us care for those things diligently. But our diligence is not for us or even for our children but always that from and through them fruit might be borne for him.
If we are truly able to embrace this perspective, these promises, this priority, then the greatest gift we can give our children is to pass these things along to them as well. If the days of tribulation are indeed approaching, then there is little time for games, for entertainment, for pampering, and for pleasures that have nothing of the kingdom in them.
But it is out of the great crucibles of history, of our current days, and of our future that God’s final glory will be revealed, and our greatest happiness will be realized. As his chosen people, we will soon come to know a far more authentic life, a far greater liberty, and the infinite unfathomable joy for which we have truly been created.
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